How many times have you heard that “the science is settled”? There’s no need for a debate over the magnitude of manmade climate change. Move along. Nothing to see here. However, if the recent work of Lord Christopher Monckton has merit, the science is about to get very unsettled indeed. If he is right, all concerns about global warming can be scrapped.
An Elementary Error
Scientists make mistakes all the time. That’s why we have the peer review process to catch and fix them. Usually, peer review works quite well, removing most errors. The ones that remain are typically at the edge of human understanding. However, Monckton has identified what he claims is an error in the basic assumptions of climate physics, which if confirmed, is both stunning and embarrassing to the entire field of climate science.
The mistake is so elementary that a lay person with no training in science can easily understand the argument. Are you ready?
Suppose you are standing in a silent room talking into a microphone and in another room your voice is played through loudspeakers. A scientist can measure the volume of your voice in both rooms. He then finds out that the sound from the loudspeakers is five times louder than your natural voice. That’s because it has been amplified.
In climate science, such an amplification process is called a positive feedback. It is originally a term borrowed from electrical engineering but is crucially important to climate science. The term “feedback” occurs about 1000 times in the 2013 IPPC climate report.
Our CO2 emissions are like the voice in the example above, and the climate system is like the amplifier and loudspeaker. On its own, a CO2 doubling produces only about two degrees Fahrenheit, but many climate scientists claim that feedbacks can amplify it to ten degrees, a whopping factor of five.
That’s why feedbacks are so important. Without them, our CO2 emissions barely have a noticeable effect on the climate, but multiply it by five and we might have a problem.
But suppose now that you are standing in a noisy room instead, with the background sound ten times higher than your voice. If you now tried to amplify the signal by a factor of five you would explode the speakers and probably deafen the poor scientist conducting the experiment.
To achieve the same level of increase in volume as before, you now need to turn down the amplifier – a lot.
The Noisy Sun
In the climate, the sun plays the role of the noisy background. We are bathed in energy from the sun all the time and our CO2 emissions must compete with that signal.
However, climate scientists use a trick to “disappear” the sun in their feedback equations. They measure the solar input and, before amplifying the signal, they subtract the noisy background created by the sun. It’s a process not unlike those fancy headphones with active noise cancellation.
Since they remove the background noise, the scientists can amplify the signal much more.
Putting the Sun Back
“Not so fast!” says Monckton. The climate cannot tell the difference between the sun and manmade CO2 emissions. There is no magic subtraction mechanism in nature, so the feedbacks must act on the whole energy input, including the sun.
He argues that by putting the sun back into the equations, the feedbacks must be much smaller. In fact, rather than a factor of five, he has calculated the feedback to be only 13%, and can therefore be largely ignored.
Disturbance in The Force
The paper by Monckton and colleagues is currently in the process of being peer-reviewed, and it is creating a stir. Monckton claims that the Vice-Chancellor of the University of East Anglia had called in a meeting of all 65 Doctors and Professors of the Environmental Sciences faculty and yelled to them:
“Monckton’s paper is a catastrophe for us. If the general public ever gets to hear of Monckton’s paper, there will be hell to pay.”
According to Monckton, one of the professors attending the meeting was his source for this quote.
The jury is still out on Monckton’s paper and claim. One thing is certain, however. Someone made an elementary error. Whether it is Lord Monckton or the climate science community remains to be determined. If Monckton is correct though, the finding will be a game changer in climate science.